Tell it Slant: How to Write a Wise Poem, essay by Camille Dungy


Few essays on writing poetry grab me by the collar, slam me against the wall, and say “Listen, dammit!” But this one did.

Camille Dungy’s words sear through the fog. She tells it slant. She tells it true. She explains how some masters have done it. If you’ve not read her poetry, seek it out. You’re in for a treat. If you have the good fortune to attend a lecture or reading by her, do so. She’s energetic, wise and kind. She knows.

Originally posted in June 2014.

26 thoughts on “Tell it Slant: How to Write a Wise Poem, essay by Camille Dungy

  1. This is a good essay, worth reading in its entirety. This explains why I had issue with a poem I read recently where someone was trying to, in very formal language, express his political views. Let’s just say he didn’t ‘tell it slant’. It came off pedantic and preachy, and therefore a huge turn-off. I’m reminded of Yeats’ great “Easter 1916” (perhaps because today is Easter Sunday) as an example of a poet who did it right. “Two long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing. I take with me the following excerpt:

    Dickinson’s poem suggests that unless the truth is revealed “gradually” and “[w]ith explanation kind,” we will not be able to absorb what we have read. Truth, Dickinson writes, can be “[t]oo bright for our infirm Delight.”

    The truth can so hurt or terrify us that it evokes instant denial. In this regard, truth becomes a blinding light. Much like the global threat of climate disruption.

    Until I became friends with the late American poet, Angela Consolo Mankiewicz, I never liked poetry. Poetry was so “slanted,” I could not decipher it’s meaning. For our poets to reveal the blinding truth, they must find the right angle for spreading that light.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome. I enjoy having to work through a poem, but dislike deliberately obscure pieces that offer little reward. Ultimately, if the poem provides no emotional resonance, it’s not successful (to my eyes).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The message I pick up here is that words can separate you off from experience: ‘There is a cool web of language…’ as Graves wrote. It is epitomised in the arm tattoo; I cannot think of much that is more fatuous. If it makes that much an impact then it has to be wrestled with on deep levels.
    It could be said the Hass poem fails by sensationalising through detail. The lived experience is circumvented. The ethical and moral realities of the people are completely smashed. How can standard language express that?

    Liked by 1 person

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